Henry Chappell serves as a field editor for The Land Report and contributes to numerous regional and national publications. He is the author of several works with photographer Wyman Meinzer, including Horses to Ride, Cattle to Cut: The San Antonio Viejo Ranch of Texas and 6666: Portrait of Texas Ranch. Chappell is also author of three novels, The Callings, Blood Kin, and, most recently, Silent We Stood, winner of the 2014 Western Writers of America Spur Award for best Western historical novel. He lives in Parker, Texas.
Review essay by Henry Chappell
Wes Ferguson, with photography by Jacob Croft Botter and introduction by Andrew Sansom
Texas A&M University Press
Flexbound, 978-1-62349-510-7, 184 pages, 61 color photos; map; index, $24.95
Andrew Sansom and William E. Reaves
Texas A&M University Press
Hardcover, 978-1-62349-534-3, 168 pages, 69 color images; index, $35.00
E. Dan Klepper; foreword by Bill Wright
Texas A&M University Press
Hardcover, 978-1-62349-493-3, 190 color, 22 b&w photos; map; appendix; index, $50.00
Given its vastness and ecological richness, Texas suffers from a lack of great nature writing. Sure, we have plenty of writing on nature and ecology, but most of it qualifies as journalism or environmental polemic. By “nature writing,” I mean beautiful, even exquisite prose that explores or presents the natural world in depth, with subtlety and feeling, without lapsing into sentimentality. Although I wouldn’t dare restrict John Graves to the category of “nature writer,” I consider his best work nature writing of the highest caliber. Graves far eclipsed Roy Bedichek, who could be called a nature writer, and good one. Who else? Stephan Harrigan, at times, back in the 1980s. Likewise, scientists Dan Lay and Joe Truett, whose quiet works on East Texas should be widely read and celebrated instead of dismissed as Texana. Looking about today, however, I see no Texas versions of Barry Lopez, Sigurd Olsen, or Ellen Meloy on our horizon, although I hope they’re out there just below the horizon, ready to break out with a book or an essay in a prestigious publication. If I’ve overlooked someone, I’ll welcome even indignant missives so long as they point me to good writing.
We Texans are, however, blessed with an abundance of fine nature photographers, artists, journalists, and indispensable university presses eager to publish their best work. Over the past weeks, I read three such books from Texas A&M University Press’s 2017 spring list.
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In The Blanco River, Wes Ferguson writes of the natural and human history of one of Texas’s most beautiful rivers. Photographs by his friend Jacob Croft Botter capture the Blanco both at its driest and its pellucid best, and, in haunting shots of the aftermath of the 2015 flood that devastated Wimberley, the awesome destructive power of a seemingly diminutive river out of its banks.
With a humorous honestly, Ferguson admits that John Graves’s beloved Goodbye to a River spawned a cottage industry of “My River and Me” books, but that he — Ferguson — is content to “travel in in Graves’s considerable wake.” As it turns out, he and Botter didn’t quite complete the epic journey they’d envisioned — paddling and camping along the length of the Blanco. Central Texas landowners are notoriously testy about trespassing. Although beds of navigable rivers belong to the citizens of Texas and can be legally floated, the definition of “navigable,” and river law in general, is hotly contested. Ferguson reminds us that “a book of statutes won’t stop a bullet.” Nervous about capricious landowners and sheriff’s deputies, the paddlers decided to explore sections of the Blanco on daytrips. Ferguson now regrets that justifiable decision. So do I.
After three short chapters describing his initial and early encounters with the Blanco, its history, and legal battles around the public’s right of access, Ferguson begins his narrative journey, appropriately, at the Blanco’s purported headwaters, where a tiny spring rises from the tail of a pool in Kendall Country. From there, over the next eleven chapters, Ferguson and Botter, walk, paddle, and portage over much of the Blanco’s length, meeting landowners (not always cordially), anglers, floaters, and other river people. Along the way, we learn much about the river’s karst geology — why its waters disappear, then reappear in seemingly unlikely places.
I found Ferguson’s prose sharp and, at times, elegant. His description of an arduous trek to the “The Narrows,” a magnificent serious of canyon pools, is especially fine. Unlike some river activists, he balances his desire for access with landowners’ rights and understandable possessiveness and protectiveness.
Ferguson devotes some forty-four pages to the 2015 Memorial Day weekend flood that destroyed hundreds of homes, thousands of trees, and claimed the lives of a dozen people. Well-written and wrenching, the stories stretch on. I suspect Ferguson felt a deep obligation to the victims, and to the survivors and family members who shared their accounts.
The Blanco River is a worthy addition to the Texas A&M University Press’s venerable River Books series. Still, I hope Ferguson and Botter eventually complete their epic trip over the length of the Blanco.
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In Of Texas Rivers and Texas Art, authors Andrew Sansom, executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, and William E. Reaves, co-owner of Reaves/Foltz Fine Art in Houston, explore ways in which Texas’s rivers have served as inspiration for generations of artists, from the frontier era to present.
In his section “Rivers and People,” Sansom recalls camping on a sandbar in Santa Elena Canyon decades ago: “Pleasantly tired, we savored the afternoon’s run. The river flowing through the canyon was challenging but presented no serious danger to us in our canoes. In the campfire’s glow, we looked ahead with anticipation to the day to come. The strong currents of this great river would take us through the imposing formation known as the Rockslide and ultimately out of Santa Elena Canyon and into the scorching sun of the Chihuahuan Desert.”
What he couldn’t imagine then was a future, now present, in which a much-depleted Rio Grande would, at times, lack sufficient water to carry canoeists along one of its most beloved stretches. Reminding us that “Rivers have wound their way through the human imagination since at least the dawn of recorded time … [that] rivers move and flow through the landscape, through the legends of humanity .…” Sansom points to the power of art as advocacy — not in the direct, activist sense, but as an invitation to engage, celebrate, love, and protect.
In “Tracing the River as a Muse in the Lone Star Landscape,” Reaves leads us through a concise history of landscape and wildlife-inspired art, beginning with Sam Houston’s reception of John James Audubon at Galveston in April of 1837, then on to the mid-nineteenth century German Romantic painters Hermann Lungkwitz and Richard Petri and their rendering of the Hill Country’s “rock-ribbed streams.” Next come the impressionists of early and mid-twentieth century. I especially enjoyed works by two San Antonio impressionists: José Arpa’s Headwaters of San Antonio and Rolla Taylor’s The Winding River, which captures a tiny slice of 1930s San Antonio. Continuing into modernist styles, Reaves introduces regionalists Alexander Hogue, William Lester, and Everett Spruce, and Hill Country artists such as Robert Wood and his protégé Porfirio Salinas, a favorite of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson.
In all, Sansom and Reaves feature the work of twenty Texas artists, including several, such as Robb Kendrick, Debbie Stevens and David Caton, working today. Their featured works and bios are collected in dedicated sections following the essays by Sansom and Reaves. I find myself returning again and again to David Caton’s perfect rendering of the structure of flowing water in Fast Waters of the Frio at Garner State Park and William Young’s playful Outlaws at Rock Crossing on the Red River.
Of Texas Rivers and Texas Art isn’t a book just for artists and critics, but for everyone who loves Texas’s natural and created beauty.
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With spare, uncaptioned photographs, and a few short, fine essays, E. Dan Klepper’s Why the Raven Calls the Canyon: Off the Grid in Big Bend Country feels like a stream-of-consciousness recalling of life deep in Texas’s Trans-Pecos region. Between 2006 and 2013, Klepper, a fine-art photographer and writer, divided his time between his home in Marathon and Fresno Ranch, an abandoned horse and mule operation on the Rio Grande. Established in the early 1900s, as a single section at the confluence with Fresno Creek, the ranch grew to some 7,000 acres during the 1980s and at one point included a 5,000-acre ranch just across the river in Mexico. What started as a horse and mule operation and later became home base to artist Jeanne Norsworthy, granddaughter of George B. Dealy, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, stood crumbling in 2006 when absentee landowners hired Klepper’s friend, park ranger Rodrigo Trevizo to keep an eye on the place. Two years later, Trevizo moved into the ranch studio, and, with Klepper’s help, set about bringing the ranch back to life, and eventually into 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Klepper describes the northward view from the studio: “The north-facing views include the shark-fin slopes of the 36-million-year-old collapsed magma dome known as the Solitario. The dome’s sawtooth profile serves as a backdrop for oddities like the Wax Factory Laccolith – an igneous peak that rises like a giant chess piece wearing a jagged crown. The laccolith lies four miles up Fresno Canyon from the studios. But it seems to grow much closer throughout the day until sundown, when it suddenly shrinks to the size of a rook in the palm of your hand.”
Amid this rugged beauty lie relics of human aspiration, fatigue, and failure. Klepper writes, “Ancient campsites and historic ruins litter the desert terrain around Fresno, sharing a robust cultural history with defunct mercury mines and remnant candelilla wax camps.” Of remains of pioneer culture, he notes, “The castaway scraps of iron and wood, broken crockery, baling wire and glass shards are not much more than flotsam cut loose during an age of hardship in a landscape that remains as indifferent and formidable today as it did one hundred years ago.” Indeed, much of the story — photographic and narrative — involves repair and restoration of old infrastructure.
Klepper gets on my good side right off with an essay titled “Dogs,” and numerous, charming, moving, and heartbreaking photos of sturdy heelers and various mutts. Throughout, photos of people, livestock, sky, and, most of all, the magnificent, brutal landscape remind us of the transient and seemingly immutable.
Readers who’ve known Klepper only through his photos and magazine articles may find themselves hungry for more of his fine prose. In Why the Raven Calls the Canyon, he reminds us just how rich Texas nature writing can be. Let’s hope he’s one of those nature writers who just appeared on our horizon.
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WES FERGUSON is a journalist and freelance writer whose work has been published by Texas Monthly, Texas Observer, Texas Co-op Power, and Longview News-Journal as well as other newspapers. He is the author of Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine. JACOB CROFT BOTTER is an award-winning photographer and photography teacher. He has worked as a photojournalist for the Longview News-Journal and is the photographer for Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine.
ANDREW SANSOM is executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University–San Marcos. The author of Scout, the Christmas Dog and other titles, he previously served as executive director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. WILLIAM E. REAVES is co-owner of Reaves-Foltz Fine Arts in Houston and is also the author of Texas Art and a Wildcatter’s Dream. He has been an avocational art historian and collector for more than thirty years.
E. DAN KLEPPER is a fine art photographer and writer based in Marathon, Texas. He is the author of 100 Classic Hikes in Texas and other books, as well as a frequent contributor to Texas Highways Magazine. His art, featuring photography, sculpture, and experimental video, has been exhibited in the United States and abroad and can be found in collections across the state.
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